Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series! OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter. It’s Playing Pepper! Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season. I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole. So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!
It was a tough year out in the desert and the falloff was a bit unexpected. Having a lot of games against the Dodgers and Padres in a short season probably doesn’t help, but the D-Backs will have to run that gauntlet at least somewhat again this year. How are they gearing up for it? Let’s take a look!
|AZ Snake Pit
C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?
Jeff: This is a good question. I think the circumstances were so far from normal that everyone is going to have a different response, and I think that all responses are valid. It was really hard for me, personally speaking, to reach my normal level of dedication to baseball last season. Part of that was due to the fact that I knew it would be a short year that was going to be really weird with lots of abnormal variance. The wackiness made it hard to take it so seriously. But more than than, the pandemic and the civil unrest due to the continued violence against Black Americans made it hard to focus on baseball. Yes, baseball was a refuge in a sense, but I felt it my duty to stay informed with the larger trends taking place in society and participate where I could. Again, that’s just my experience, but you asked so there you go!
The rule changes didn’t bother me very much aside from the fact that the Diamondbacks didn’t get much benefit from having a DH. The shortened doubleheaders, the man on second in extras, those things didn’t bother me much. I can say that the expanded playoff both didn’t appeal to me and also made sense given that there weren’t enough games for teams to continue separating themselves from one another. It made sense, but I didn’t care for it. It was a strange year for baseball, a strange year for our country, and I’m taking it all with a supersized grain of salt.
Jim: I have to say, I found it very hard to work up any kind of enthusiasm for it. Baseball simply didn’t seem that important, and the delay to the season helped dampen my interest further. Watching games unfold on TV in empty parks, felt more like you were watching someone else playing a video game, and there were few moments that resonated with me. Of course, it didn’t help that the D-backs largely sucked! But overall, my enthusiasm was likely as low as it has been in the 20+ years since I moved to Arizona.
I wasn’t a fan of most of the rule changes. I don’t like the DH, and the “runner on second” effectively reduced extra innings to a lottery. I’d rather they simply allow ties if a game is still level after, say, 12 innings. But there’s something to be said for REALLY long games, simply in that they’re memorable – even if I inevitably seem to end up being the one who has to recap them! If they want to speed up games, MLB should simply look at enforcing the current rules, such as not letting the hitter go for a wander between pitches. No new rules needed.
C70: Carson Kelly looks like he took a bit of a step back last year. How much of that was just general 2020 craziness and how much is a concern?
Jeff: I think there’s always some concern when a cornerstone type of player takes a step back, and Kelly has the potential to be a cornerstone type for Arizona. Fair or not, he’ll always be linked in a way to Paul Goldschmidt and his production is important to the long term outlook for the franchise. He chased more pitches out the zone, made worse contact, hit the ball on the ground more often, and almost never walked. That equates to a lower OBP, less damage done on batted balls, and a higher rate of generating outs while lower his rate of productive outcomes. Those are all negative changes and they are tied to more than random variance. Something(s) changed and not for the better. Now, those things can be corrected and no one’s throwing in the towel here. But this is a big season for Carson Kelly and he needs to get back on track.
Jim: It’s very hard to say. He had less than 130 PA, and I would be very reluctant to come to any particular conclusions based on such a small sample size. Obviously, a .649 OPS wasn’t good, but that was really the result of just one very bad month. Over the season’s final month, his line was .250/.271/.485 for an OPS of .757. Even smaller sample size, admittedly – but it’s definitely preferable for Kelly to start badly and finish well, rather than the other way round. He’s still likely the long-term occupant of the catcher’s position for Arizona.
C70: What’s the strength of this team going into this season?
Jeff: The strength of the team has got to be defense, particularly infield defense. Go around the diamond — Christian Walker is a top-notch defender at first, Ketel Marte is excellent at second base, Nick Ahmed is a marquee shortstop, and Eduardo Escobar can get it done at third more than adequately, plus the catchers are quite good in Kelly and Steven Vogt. If you’re not hitting the ball out of the infield, you’re in trouble against this team. The problem here is that infield defense doesn’t usually win rings. I think this group can provide tangible benefits to the pitching staff, especially for guys like Merrill Kelly and Madison Bumgarner who tend to manage contact more than blowing hitters away. It’d be super great to brag on the lineup, brag on the rotation, or brag on the bullpen even, but that just doesn’t apply here, unfortunately.
Jim: Uh… Hard to say a team which finished last in the division and added only a couple of relief arms, as having any real “strength”! But there’s a lot of flexibility on the roster, with a lot of players being capable of playing multiple positions. I think this gives manager Torey Lovullo a lot of options, both in terms of starting lineup construction, and making changes during games, e.g. to get platoon advantage late in games. The rotation has probably got most room in terms of upside, especially if Luke Weaver and Madison Bumgarner can bounce back from poor 2020 showings. MadBum, in particular, looked very good in his first spring outing, striking out six of seven batters faced. But I’ll need more than two spring innings before I would be happy calling him our ace…
C70: Andy Young, the third piece sent over in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, made his debut last season. What’s the plan for him going forward?
Jeff: The plan for Andy Young in 2021 is going to be a lot like it was in 2020. He’s going to be up and down, most likely, and get action at third, maybe second, and as a pinch hitter. There’s no obvious spot for him and he does have some competition for an infield-oriented bench role. That said, Eduardo Escobar is a guy who could be traded midseason if the team is scuffling and Escobar is doing well, potentially opening a hole for Young to get a longer, deeper look. There’s some reason to be hopeful for him and the fans I keep in touch with like Young quite a bit. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t debut at a younger age and he’s always going to have to look over his shoulder for younger competition, but I do think he deserves continued opportunities.
Jim: That’s Andrew Young now, I’ll have you know. 🙂 The D-backs seem to have an extraordinary number of infielders in camp, and to be honest, Young is just another one of them. Right now, the bulk of the roster is probably set on the position side, with perhaps two or three spots to be decided. Young will be in the mix for one of those, but there’s going to be a lot of competition. Still, even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’s probably going to get a chance at some point during the season. Again, his ability to play almost any infield position is something that elevates his stock. What happens when he gets the opportunity will largely depend on Young seizing the moment. He’ll get whatever playing time he deserves thereafter.
C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?
Jeff: This is really hard to answer for the simple reason that no one really knows where this team is going in the short term. They want to compete, but what does that mean? Does that mean lineup and play hard and lose 85 games? Or does that mean finishing the offseason strong by signing a few of the best remaining applicable free agents and pulling off a trade or two? As of this writing (early February), it’s also totally possible that they’re selling by June given that the Dodgers and Padres appear to be on a different level altogether. If the team can play to a .500-ish record by the end of June, I think this team makes some low-cost acquisitions and finishes with an above-.500 record. And if they scuffle over the first three months then I could see them pulling the plug and the team struggles to win more than 72 games. This is what you get with a “high-variance” roster — big potential swings in both directions. If you’re looking to peg me to one of those two scenarios, I’ll take the latter and hope they exceed my diminished expectations.
Jim: Probably needing a telescope to see the Dodgers and Padres. Yeah, the NL West is a tough division and with 38 games against Los Angeles and San Diego, about all I can realistically hope for, is the team being able to sit around .500. I’m mostly interested in seeing how the younger players develop this year. Can Zac Gallen become the team ace? Where will Daulton Varsho, that rare combo of catcher and center-fielder, end up settling? Is the fastest man in baseball, Tim Locastro, ready to take over an everyday role in center-field? Arizona does have one of the better farm systems, but a lot of the best prospects are still a couple of years away from reaching the majors. As such, I don’t have great expectations of the team being able to contend. But you never know, and that’s why they play the games.
C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?
Jeff: There are a couple of ways to interpret this. In the short term, the grade would have to be pretty poor. It’s been a quiet winter for them and they are clearly not interested in making a push to keep up with the top of the division. That might be disheartening for some fans to hear, but it also might be a fool’s errand to even attempt. The wide-angled view is quite positive, however. The team continues to draft well and has done a better job of developing talent over the last several years. Mike Hazen is good at his job and so are the key members of his team in the front office. There’s no reason to feel any differently, in my opinion. He’s hamstrung by ownership that doesn’t want to spend big unless the team is knocking on the postseason’s door and that’s not going to change. But his efforts to build a core of players that can get them to that postseason doorstep more often seem to be thriving. No one wants to hear it, but the best move for this team is to keep stacking chips that position them well for 2023 and beyond. In the meantime, they don’t want to be a laughing stock and I can respect that on some level. Baseball’s weird, why not give yourself a chance?
Jim: I think they currently deserve a B. GM Mike Hazen has done a great job of rebuilding a farm system that resembled the surface of the moon by the time Dave Stewart got fired. But some of the moves at the major-league level have been puzzling. For instance, trading for Starling Marte, only to trade him away after just 33 games for Arizona. Similarly, signing Bumgarner felt more like the final piece of a puzzle, when the team really weren’t that close to contention. I think I might have been happier with the team going full-on rebuild, but – with the exception of three weeks last year when the Diamondbacks went 2-18 – Hazen has generally managed to field a competitive enough team, while building for the future.